Recommended reading for anyone — churched or unchurched — considering the claims of Jesus Christ
Robert J Spitzer’s quartet, Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence, is one step closer to completion with the arrival of God So Loved the World (Ignatius, 2016), its third volume. The first (reviewed here) invited readers on an inner quest for the heart’s one desire—transcendence or God. The second (reviewed here) then asked whether it is more reasonable to believe that this desire for ultimate happiness suggests the existence of a transcendent subject (the soul) and object (God), or is instead an illusory accident of evolution.
These opening two volumes naturally function together as a broad-based presentation of the rationality of faith without recourse to Scripture or tradition. This strategy continues in chapters 1-2 of the third volume, in which the desire for transcendence or ultimate happiness, which has been Spitzer’s central concern all along, is identified with unconditional love, or agape. Drawing on a variety of sources both ancient (Plato, the Bible) and modern (C.S. Lewis, Victor Frankl), Spitzer argues that reason can allow us to grasp and articulate our desire for such transcendent love, but provocatively suggests that this desire is only actually satisfied by the unconditionally loving God supremely revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The opening chapters thus bridge the previous natural theological volumes with the chapters to come.
Now, Spitzer’s focus narrows. He intends to keep as much of his audience as he can on board, but, as he has made clear throughout, he is a Christian writing to present the rationality not of theism in general, but of Christian faith. Focused entirely on Jesus, chapters 3-6 begin by offering a sketch of his life as illuminating the unconditional love that is our hearts’ desire: Jesus’ unflinching embrace of suffering even unto death and his unqualified acceptance of friends and enemies, disciples, outcasts, and sinners alike (3). Christian faith claims, furthermore, that this life is a matter of history. Accordingly, Spitzer surveys contemporary New Testament scholarship to weigh the evidence regarding the most incredible events in this life, namely, the resurrection (4) and miracle stories (5). Drawing on the work of Evangelical Gary Habermas and Anglican N.T. Wright, Spitzer concludes that these are events, not legends or fables. The weight of history then forces the question of identity (6). Who is this man? The New Testament, Spitzer says, confesses that Jesus is God come in the flesh, he is the entry of eternity into history.
The book’s denouement weaves together the desire spoken of in volumes 1-2 with the satisfaction of that desire as it has been extended to human being by Jesus himself. Spitzer extends a winsome, thorough, and gentle invitation to friendship with Christ and entry into the Church (chapter 7). The book ends with an argument review and two appendices—one relating to history (on the Shroud of Turin) and one relating to the deity of Jesus (on the doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity).
I was glad to see that Spitzer had recovered the accessibility that was a strength of vol. 1. Though the writing bogged down in the middle chapters of vol. 2, here he returns to form. His writing is clear, concise and careful without becoming pedantic. Another strength is Spitzer’s ability to tie together good scholarship with evangelical appeal. All too often, these are divorced, leaving the former dry and irrelevant and the latter open to charges of emotional manipulation. Here, each tempers the extreme of the other and the result is a powerful presentation of the Gospel in the last chapter. I would happily recommend this book to any friend who, whether de-churched or unchurched, is considering the claims of Jesus or Christianity.
But it is not just for them. The book is also for Christians seeking to explore the rationality, coherence, and indeed intricacy and beauty of their own faith. And while Spitzer is unapologetically Catholic, the book hopefully will find appeal across ecclesial divides. Of course, Christians from other communions may demur at this or that point of the book—I did. But this should in no way diminish what Spitzer has managed to accomplish here. It is really good.
Finally, a note of caution. Spitzer risks emulating the bad habits of two of his favorite authors. Like books in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, thus far each new book is longer than the last. The latest comes in at 342 pages of text excluding the appendices (add 60 if you want to read these). Stylistically accessible, the work still makes demands on the reader’s time and concentration.
And like N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God, Spitzer’s series seeks to grow in number. Originally proposed as a quartet, I heard rumors several months back (from an impeccable source) that the series was about to become a quintet. When I followed up with Ignatius Press, their contact clarified that while the quartet would remain just that, an addendum was being planned. So it is a fifth volume that’s not a fifth volume. Perhaps the words of the Teacher are apt here: “Of the making of books there is no end, but too much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
But these are quibbles. I hope you’ll read volume 3, and find it as useful and enjoyable as I did. I hope, further, that it leaves you looking forward to vol. 4, in which the problem of evil will be treated as the main objection to the grand story told thus far.
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